March 12, 2014

Lydia Sigourney and the Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate has been recognized as the first newspaper published by a Native American tribe and the first to report news in a tribal language. Its first issue was published in northern Georgia in early 1828. In the next decade, the Cherokee Nation would relocate to present-day Oklahoma thanks to Indian Removal Act, commonly called the Trail of Tears.

But the newspaper also published each article in English translation and attracted more white readers than Native American readers. It also attracted white contributors, including Connecticut poet Lydia Sigourney, who published her poem "The Cherokee Mother" in the March 12, 1831 issue.

Ye bid us hence.—These vales are dear,
To infant hope, to patriot pride,
These streamlets tuneful to our ear,
Where our light shallops peaceful glide.

Beneath yon consecrated mounds
Our fathers' treasur'd ashes rest,
Our hands have till'd these corn-clad ground,
Our children's birth these home have blest,

Here, on our souls a Saviour's love
First beam'd with renovating ray,
Why should we from these haunts remove?
But still you warn us hence away.

Child, ask not where! I cannot tell,
Save where wide wastes uncultur'd spread,
Where unknown waters fiercely roll,
And savage monsters howling tread;

Where no blest Church with hallow'd train,
Nor hymns of praise, nor voice of prayer,
Like angels soothe the wanderer's pain;
Ask me no more. I know not where.

Go seek thy Sire. The anguish charm
That shades his brow like frowning wrath,
Divide the burden from his arm,
And gird him for his pilgrim-path.

Come, moaning babe! Thy mother's arms
Shall bear thee on our weary course,
Shall be thy shield from midnight harms,
And baleful dews, and tempests hoarse.

Sigourney was clearly writing in opposition to the Indian Removal Act ("Why should we from these haunts remove?"). However, rather than writing in a political tone, she appeals to the emotions, representing the mother figure as loyal to her family and, perhaps most importantly, as a Christian. To this mother and her child, the "wide wastes" to which they are being removal has "no blest Church" and no hymns nor prayer. Sigourney apparently never republished her poem "The Cherokee Mother" in her various collected works. Even so, the poem was certainly not her only attempt at educating the public about the Native Americans. In 1822, for example, she published a sympathetic epic poem called Traits of the Aborigines of America.

Further, Sigourney, who once said she "never wrote for fame," was one of several prominent women who urged other women to write to Congress in opposition of the Indian Removal Act. Despite a flood of responses, the bill passed in a close vote in the House of Representatives, 102 to 97, and President Andrew Jackson signed it into law.

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